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This Day in History: Midnight Escape from the British

On this day in 1776, a fleet of American ships escapes from British General Guy Carleton. Benedict Arnold was still a good guy back then, fighting valiantly for the American cause, and he’d just led an amazing, middle-of-the-night escape. The British thought they had Arnold cornered following the Battle of Valcour Island.

They were wrong. Apparently, they didn’t know who they were dealing with. Arnold was never one to be cornered.

Battle of Valcour Island (artist unknown)

Arnold was working to protect George Washington’s army, then struggling in New York against William Howe. Washington had been chased out of Long Island and Manhattan; he was now encamped at Harlem Heights. In the meantime, the British had been building a fleet of warships that they hoped would take control of Lake Champlain. They intended to take those ships down the Hudson River toward New York, joining with Howe’s army and cutting off Washington from two directions.

Arnold was determined to stop the British at Lake Champlain, long before they could go down the Hudson and reach the Atlantic. He started with only four ships, but Congress had authorized him to build more.

Arnold and his men worked hard through August and September, but it wasn’t enough. Arnold’s ships were still smaller and his men less experienced.

By early October, Arnold learned that Carleton was headed his way with a large British fleet, commanded by Captain Thomas Pringle. Arnold was outmanned and outgunned. He would need to get creative. He decided to hide his fleet between Valcour Island and the New York shore of Lake Champlain. He hoped that the British fleet would go by without seeing him right away. The large, cumbersome British warships would have difficulty turning around very quickly. That would give Arnold time to launch an attack and injure the big ships before they were at full fighting force.

It worked! Carleton sailed right past Arnold on the morning of October 11, just as Arnold had hoped. When the British finally spotted the Americans, it was too late. “After we had in this manner got behind the enemy,” Carleton later said, “the wind which had been favorable to bring us there, however entirely prevented our being able to bring our whole force to engage them.”

The biggest American ship, the Royal Savage, took an early hit. Its mast cracked and the ship ran ashore. It was a discouraging start, but the Americans fought furiously anyway.

“[T]he engagement became general and very warm,” Arnold later wrote. “Some of the enemy’s ships and all their gondolas beat up and rowed within musket-shot of our fleet. They continued a very hot fire with round and grape shot until five o’clock when they thought proper to retire about 6 or 7 hundred yards distance, and continued the fire until dark.”

The relatively inexperienced American seamen had hung tough all day. But now their ships were badly damaged and they were low on ammunition. The British had Arnold trapped in a channel by the island. They retired for the night, thinking they would finish off Arnold in the morning.

Big mistake.

Arnold had studied these waters for months. He knew of a small gap that was (barely) deep enough for his fleet. He decided to attempt a midnight escape.

The American wounded were carried below deck so the British would not hear the sounds of their moaning. The ships’ oars were muffled. Lights aboard deck were extinguished, except for one small lantern that was covered so as to make the light visible only to a ship directly behind it. The ships would be able to follow each other, single-file. Slowly and carefully, the American fleet left the channel.

The British awoke on the morning of October 12 to a surprising sight: The Americans were gone. The channel next to Valcour Island was empty.

Did Arnold really get away? Or did Carleton catch him after all? Naturally, the story continues tomorrow.

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